Process Junkie: Superhero Costume Design, Carmen Carnero Part 2
Welcome back, everyone!
Today we’ve got another special installment - part two of my interview with the fantastic Carmen Carnero - as we discuss Superhero Costume Design and in particular her terrific apocalyptic CAPTAIN MARVEL designs for Carol Danvers, Echo, Hazmat, and Spider-Woman.
For any of you not already in the know, Carmen is the incredible comic book artist that currently draws MILES MORALES SPIDER-MAN, she also helped me launch CAPTAIN MARVEL way back in 2019 — and drew not only 9 gorgeous issues (#1-5 and #8-11) — but as you can see here she did TONS of costume design for us. If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 about the design of her iconic STAR costume.
KELLY: Picking up where we left off last time, Carmen, do you have a different process for those different types of design — all new design versus re-design of an iconic character? Can you walk us through some of the steps you take when doing these kinds of costume designs or re-designs?
CARMEN: I always begin with research. To give you an example, for the post-apocalyptic designs I watched movies, TV shows, fashion designs, etc. Anything that would get me on a path and didn’t look like anything before it. I enjoy that part a lot. Then I start playing with ideas and designs and I send that first batch. At that point the hard work starts. Once I receive the feedback I develop the design we’ve all liked the most and I send I again. The next and last pass would be to polish details and to send the definitive design.
KELLY: When we got put on Captain Marvel together it was huge for both of us – the movie was coming out just a couple months after our #1 and Carol Danvers was about to have millions more fans than she had before. It was such a big moment. So what did we do? We took her out of the traditional highly visible costume after one issue and put her in a weird post apocalyptic bubble with a new look! Haha
KELLY: But all jokes aside, this is really a case of your designs just being TOO POWERFUL! Because as I recall Marvel was pretty nervous about us telling this sort of alternate reality FEELING/LOOKING story right off the bat – but when they saw your apocalyptic designs everyone just got really excited. It was like suddenly there was no resistance. I was at the summit where they first showed off the designs and people were freaking out over them. That was actually how we were able to get that wraparound “design variant” for issue 2 as I recall -- impressing everyone at the summit.
CARMEN: I remember the day you told me about all that and it was just too crazy for me. I had just landed in New York to announce issue #1 and my Marvel exclusivity at New York Comic Con and the first thing I did upon arrival was to have dinner with almost all the Captain Marvel team, only Tamra couldn’t join us. The thing is that we started having dinner and you were all so happy for the reception the idea had have in the Summit. In that table, that eve, we discussed many ideas I hope we can do someday…
KELLY: Me too! I can’t wait until we can work together again!
KELLY: So, I’m a huge fan of alternate reality stories, and though this wasn’t technically that, it had a lot of that energy. And one of my favorite things about those kind of stories is seeing new looks for beloved characters. How do you approach something like that – something where you’re trying to do something all-new that fits a new environment/circumstances but that still FEELS like the character we know and love and maybe even directly references it? Any secrets you can share?
CARMEN: In this case the first thing I thought is that in that post-apocalyptic world all the “new” clothes should come from or evolve from the old ones. Maybe with add-ons of leather/armors a la Mad Max or simply patches in their suits that show the passing of time in that bubble. Once I had the idea designs came much easily. What worked was to start from their regular suits and that those distinctive parts were recognizable with the add-ons/modifications.
KELLY: As I recall we went back and forth on a lot of different Carol options, but I remember loving your Jessica Drew (and Echo) looks right off the bat. You had three to start and they were all great, and one I was just totally in love with – I don’t think you changed anything from that first design. AND you had done on that first pass this sort of spider-shaped “war paint” on her face and it was so damn cool. When EVERYONE goes “well that looks fucking cool” it must feel pretty great.
CARMEN: Yes, it feels amazing! It doesn’t happen often. Jessica’s design was the only one where I knew I had nailed it and it gave me the idea to unify all the designs: that was to create face paints for all of them. That would unify all the women as if they were part of a tribe.
KELLY: Right! Of course Echo already has that hand print “war paint” as her traditional/base look, so trying it for all of them made tons of sense when you did that incredible Spider-Woman design. Because Hazmat had a covering on her face, we just put it on the mask. But Carol turned out to be tricky. As I recall we all just assumed the Hala star would work great and then we all hated it! It gave her a really evil look, right?
CARMEN: Yes, it didn’t work and that’s why I moved the star to the side of the shaved head.
KELLY: Yeah, as I recall we were sorta out of ideas – we wanted Carol to match the others, but nothing was working - and then you started looking at Military Insignia – right?
CARMEN: True, I found the Captain insignias of the US Air Force and it was only a matter of picking the right position. I love to research because the cool ideas always come from doing that.
KELLY: Because we were dealing with an “apocalyptic-ish” environment, it meant we were doing a kind of Mad Max-ish thing – but that means a lot of details – belts and pouches and layers. Did you ever regret those amazing but detailed designs once you had to execute them in the issues?
CARMEN: Yes, since page 1 of issue 2 I told myself, why have you done these to yourself, including so many details? The problem was checking everything a lot of times to make sure it was correct.
KELLY: I feel you. I’ve never had it THAT bad as a writer, but I’ve definitely done things I thought were cool and then came to regret them because they were a huge pain. When you look back at these designs do you still really like them? And either way, is that typical for you?
CARMEN: I love those designs. I wouldn’t change them because they’re not the typical ones you see in a superhero comic-book.
KELLY: Totally agree, I love them so much even today. Are there things you catch yourself wishing you could change, or wishing that we had picked a different version for?
CARMEN: In my head I always see some things I’d change from the work I did the day before, but this is not one of those cases. I wouldn’t change anything at all. I have a folder full of references for other things that I couldn’t add like vehicles, weaponry, etc. This arc was an endless fountain of ideas.
KELLY: Ugh. That’s usually my biggest frustration with comics, there’s never enough time/space to do everything you want to do! So all of these characters here are ladies, but you also did a Nuclear Man re-design and a new character Som for this arc – do you feel like you make different choices when designing for a male character vs a female character?
CARMEN: I normally don’t make distinctions but in Nuclear Man’s case it was necessary to signal his toxic masculinity and his body build was huuuuuuuuge. I think when you design characters you have to think about their body build, powers, and that kind of thing more than thinking about their gender. Maybe in my case powers are what dictates the most in terms of the design.
KELLY: That makes a lot of sense to me. A lot of people are very into more practical/realistic costume design and a lot of people really hate that idea – where do you fall?
CARMEN: I always think about the realistic part of the design, how it’ll move, if it allows freedom of movement, etc. There’s characters with exquisite designs but then it’s impossible to make them have exaggerated moves in fights. The design needs to be practical first, and then it must look good because sooner or later, at least in superhero books, someone else will have to draw it.
KELLY: Does whoever’s asking you to do the design EVER pick your favorite?
CARMEN: NEVER, same as it happens with the covers, they always pick the one I like the least, hahaha. But it helps seeing other points of view and not getting trapped in your own idea. This is a teamwork.
KELLY: That’s a very generous way to look at it. And you’re certainly right about the teamwork and collaboration. How does it feel to see other artists – and also fans/cosplayers – interpreting and celebrating the designs – both in and out of comic books?
CARMEN: It feels amazing. I love to see other artists interpreting my designs. It made me really happy to see a group of people cosplaying with my post-apocalyptic designs on Instagram, it’s so cool. I dream about going to a con and crossing paths with somebody wearing a cosplay with something I’ve designed.
KELLY: Yeah, Covid certainly didn’t make that as easy as it used to be, but I’m sure it will happen for you. Thank you so much for doing this Carmen - you know how much I hope we get to work together again someday.
CARMEN: I think that would make a lot of people happy, so I hope so, too!
Okay, that’s it for today, but huge thanks to Carmen for being so generous with her time in taking this stroll down superhero costume memory lane. I’ve got a couple more interviews lined up already, including one with current BLACK WIDOW artist Elena Casagrande! Woo!
So stay tuned and be good to each other when possible, and when not, well, fuck ‘em.